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Artists in Line for Collective Security14.11.2012 17:10
Palo Fabuš | critique | en cs
At a time when one of the extremely few identifiable and yet unintegratable positions is held by those who “refuse to conform,” artists want to conform. Instead of further exposing the open wound of reality and pulling the mesh of the matrix towards the Other, they have chosen the opposite course; having filled in their application for (and endorsement of) social obligations, they stand in line for a collective security provided by enlightened managers and sociologists.
From the entire communicative world, via the most diverse channels and under sundry circumstances, there come personal stories, the commotion of marching crowds, chanting and occupying; a chaos of sounds whose smaller or greater similarities echo with ancient calls for change. They are repeated again and again, here conservative there progressive in opinion, and despite their diverse nature it does not require any greater perceptiveness to discern, for some time now, a constant refrain of dissatisfaction with living conditions, the political order, and the state of the world in general.
It is precisely the fundamental unity of this situation that allows us to better understand events that we can today observe in the world of art, among artists and creative intellectuals. Initiatives, platforms, and waves of protest such as the artists’ strike in Poland, the debate surrounding the working conditions of British gallery interns, the manifesto by Berlin’s “Haben und Brauchen,” the Reko project for evaluating the working conditions of artists at Swedish art institutions, the Declaration against a Zero Wage in the Czech Republic, the international Artleaks database of cases of censorship and exploitation, and similar examples all have ideologically attached themselves to a movement that has spent years increasing awareness of the critical asymmetry between workers and employers, including calls for amending this situation. The fact that this struggle against “precarious work” is being carried out within an atmosphere of widespread and growing opposition to the rule of the market is a clear sign that we are living in an era that is not only open to reevaluating and comparing ideological systems and ways of thinking in the spirit of new beginnings and returns to the past, but also points towards a pre-agreed solidarity, a shadow of the spirit of the time, and the promise of participating in a historical shift.
It is a time of opportunities and challenges. Opportunity – not only stated but, more importantly, acted upon – provides the conditions under which determination is even more determined, endeavors are more motivated, and the vision of alliances is more clearly encouraging. It is an exciting time, whose clamor exposes both the risk that critical thinking will be tempered by an impulsive enthusiasm for ready-made moral values as well as the chance that engagement will be saturated with the courage to always think even more differently.
Declaration Against a Zero Wage
Because contemporary activities that have criticized the status of the artist share not only the same impetus but also the same rhetoric and basic arguments, I will here limit myself to the texts and media pronouncements of the Czech “Declaration against a Zero Wage.”1 Its authors and signatories include people of various ages and areas of activity. Nevertheless, the list is clearly dominated by young Czech artists and curators, longtime active and leading members of the artistic community whose previous work and public activities make them, in my opinion, good candidates for representing the opinions and views of one artistic generation.
According to the Declaration’s authors, Czech freelance artists (“precarious intellectuals” – A2) find themselves in a “difficult situation” (A2), which the authors consider not only unjust but also inauspicious for the making of art. The distribution of remuneration within art institutions has failed to achieve a fair balance among those who participate in the institution’s programming (office staff, production staff, graphic designers, janitors, curators, and artists), even though one cannot do without the other. An intuitive counterargument justifies this asymmetry on the basis of fairness, since there exists a similar asymmetry of profit (i.e., their social status) in terms of the visibility of the artist’s or curator’s name as part of a cultural or media event. The Declaration rejects this reasoning on the grounds that not only the artists and cultural producers (curators) benefit from this symbolic capital, but so does the institution itself – in other words, it only looks like asymmetry. The work of the artist and curator remains unpaid; what is more, many exhibitions end without any permanent or transportable artifacts that the artist might use as a source for later profit and livelihood. The Declaration insists that under such circumstances artists are left with no other choice than to try to make a living elsewhere. One result of a situation in which art institutions, in line with neo-liberal ideology, have delegated financial responsibility onto the free market, is that artists lack sufficient working freedom because they have to submit to pressures for salability. The authors see the Declaration as a moral appeal whose objective is to make it customary for an artist’s wage to be regularly included in an exhibition’s budget.
It is clear that, in keeping with legitimacy and rights, the Declaration represents a civic criticism of the state, and it should be understood as such. One example is its emphasis on art as a vocation, with the accordant entitlements and rights resulting from performing one’s profession and engaging in an exchange of values, where morals play a corrective and the state a regulative role. Next to these explicit positions and recommendations, however, the Declaration (like any other public act) bases its discourse on a hidden set of important assumptions that tell us more than what was consciously intended. And because the Declaration deserves to be taken seriously, we should not take this discourse for granted or view it as something that just happened to be there when the Declaration was written up – especially if the questions that the Declaration raises go beyond the debate that it hopes to engage in.
The Declaration’s Discourse
The terms and concepts that the Declaration uses in its argumentation are nothing more than terms that came into being at some point, experienced a certain history, and today have a weight that makes them sophisticated and dynamic tools with more than just a little critical momentum. For this reason, they create and reproduce certain visions of the world and the way it is organized. In other words, if we focus on the presumptions that the Declaration’s authors do not address (i.e., those that are assumed to be consensual), we can look at how they see the world in which they live or want to live.
Ever since we abandoned our faith in the meaning of history, the dominant view of society has unarguably been based primarily on political economics, and the Declaration in no way deviates from this assumption. Its sociological vocabulary works with the established notion of the relationship between society and a group of individuals, without in any way defining itself in relation to it. Although some people might find the Declaration’s recommendations impossible to implement, its authors’ explanations and argumentation are nothing if not realistic. Nevertheless, to consider a discourse of such terminology as something neutral represents the kind of realism that a priori limits debate in a manner for which sociology has been frequently criticized in the past.
The sociologization of thought and the penetration of the vocabulary of experts into everyday language are two phenomena that have accompanied mankind since the early days of modernity. As a pillar of secularization and reflexivity, they have played an important role in developing democratic elements such as civic critique, inclusion, and the protection of minority interests. The fact that today it is no longer so unusual to discuss categories of majority, minority, representation, average, social tendencies, aberrations, roles, profession, specialization, classes, groups or Bourdieu’s forms of capital is a sign of the long-term and wide-reaching influence and formation of the symbolic environment in which we live. Nevertheless, when dealing with political acts we all-too-easily succumb to the impression of a neutral description – all the more so the more successfully such acts marginalize or expressly deny this trait. Of course it is possible to understand a political act as something ideological, but if we understand ideology as an immediately identifiable strategy of meaning and rhetoric, as some kind of definable complex of ideas, then we easily overlook the extent to which an unconscious preference for something broader lies hidden in banal everyday terms – not to mention terms through which we relate to social structures. And yes, we always exist within some ideological system, and can break free of it only in favor of something even more hidden. We must see through this fact, however, treat it as a problematic practice that exists, and understand each instance thereof not as an opportunity for mere use, but for creation.
I believe that the manner in which the Declaration’s authors ascribe terms to the world in order to measure it and, yardstick in hand, convince us of injustices, is somewhat awkward. I don’t think that they would really explain the world in which we live only in those terms without taking into account how very important it is – especially in a situation in which such sociological thinking has become standard in the public realm – to emphasize that the situation is more complicated and that the question of relevance requires political struggle. Nevertheless, in terms of legitimacy they are doing art and artists in general a disservice by resorting to such a compromise of comprehensibility and, through their vocabulary, agreeing to something that, if they were more rigorous, they themselves would not agree with.
Since I do not wish to engage in similar simplifications, I will look briefly at “what everyone knows.”
The Collective Individual
One of the most telling and at the same time most problematic expressions of homogenization is a weakening of the conviction that this process is undesirable. Its features have been increasingly successful in merging with a backdrop in which criticism and subversion are appreciated only to the extent that they do not threaten the self-preservation mechanisms of the process of homogenization. One of its greatest successes is the spread and acceptance of the story of criticism, which historically exhausted itself with the assimilation of the final remains of “external” positions that might have effectively identified any problems.
There is no “outside” anymore, it is claimed.
What exists today is often called the result of a long historical process of “individualization.” This term is often misunderstood and is confused with terms such as egoism or independence. Alternatively, individualization is commonly defined as the rise of social mobility. This means that in an individualized society, social status is not predetermined by the social conditions into which a person is born. From the viewpoint of the modern era, we can agree without greater reservations that we truly are living in an individualized society. But if we limit our view to one generation and try to find an answer to the question of social mobility in public debate, then we rediscover the diversity that we sometimes call the political spectrum. In other words, we can talk about individualization when discussing a specific event or issue only with an impracticable and manipulative ambiguity.
The Declaration does not mention individualization, but the terms that it uses function very similarly: in political debates, their objective unambiguousness is emphasized in all seriousness, no matter how ambiguously they are used. If we take a closer look at individualization, then we see that it is not really about independence but that the relationship between one’s origins and success in life may, seen from certain angles, truly be significantly weaker. In a broader sense, however, dependence has not changed a bit – it has merely been transformed and shifted into the background of everyday existence. It is invisible, coming to the surface only when basic things don’t “work.” Even if, in the interest of argument, I were to take literally the mantra of the American Dream that I can become whatever I want, I would be left with a half-truth if at the same time I didn’t take into account that in a society of highly specialized work I am constantly surrounded by things created by countless people I don’t know – a society in which I encounter individuals who would not be what they are if they themselves did not live in such a densely interconnected web of dependence between people and things. In other words: our freedom is all the greater, the more dependent we are on things or people without which this freedom would not be possible. Late modern man has liberated himself from having to expend the extensive effort necessary for his self-preservation in the past, and the “only” thing that he has bound himself to do in return is to promise that he will leave this situation as it is or will optimize it.
Individualization thus is not the same as independence. It is possible that today Zygmunt Bauman’s argument that “the added value of ‘combined forces’ is visible only with difficulty”2 is no longer valid, but that doesn’t mean that individualization is or has been egoism. Nor is it egoism despite the fact that the role formerly played by social imagination has – as Austrian sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina observes – been taken over by a focus on the individual.3 Similarly, the Declaration’s discourse emphasizes the idea of the individual, but it is an idea that we determine and maintain collectively – by reproducing conjunctive dependencies within the interest of belonging (i.e., membership). If anything at all remains of the “outside,” then it contains a way of thinking that such collective reproduction painstakingly resists.
A Description of the Declaration’s Artist
We maintain this collectiveness through a highly organic and complex range of participation in it. When talking about the Declaration, it is thus not enough to point out a language that uncritically legitimates a particular vision of the world. Terms such as wage, vocation, purpose, profit, investment and symbolic capital – which the Declaration takes for granted or on which it bases its arguments – greatly reduce what art is or should be, but they are a mere detail when we try to answer the question that we must ask ourselves anew. Because if we are to continue to assign artists the specific status for which they long, then it is not enough to ask in what world they want to live, but above all we must know how they understand themselves. We must ask: Who is the Declaration’s artist?
Right at the outset we should say that we can reliably engage only in partial conjecture. The authors themselves do not ask themselves this question, and except for a few explicitly articulated positions they answer it only in fragments and between the lines. Nevertheless, even these hints are enough for us to speculate as to where the logic of their discourse takes us if we accept it at face value. For instance, we can only assume – they never formulate it – that they still understand art and artists as something highly special that, unlike most other human activities, is not used for symbolic and biological reproduction but is created without any external purpose. In other words, art wants to be something truly exceptional. What is more, saturated by history we know that it should be something very valuable, precious, and fragile. But what if there are too many artists today? It is a strange question, one that we best of all would like to label as vulgar and put aside. And even if I did, it would be a shame not to understand the fact that this question pops up so often today as a sign that the artist no longer is what he used to be. So who is he?
I already hinted at the first characteristic while trying to answer the question as to how the Declaration’s authors see the world in which they live: They see themselves as members not only of a particular group, but also of greater society with its shift work and concept of the individual who, under fair conditions guaranteed by the state, follows the equilibrium of “debit” and “credit.” As a homo economicus, the artist either does not question this fact or does so during the “working hours” of his vocation as a critical intellectual.
From this, we arrive at the second characteristic: despite this group’s specific nature, in keeping with the first characteristic it can be understood as a group that sees itself as such and demands its working rights as such. This is a legitimate standpoint whenever a group’s functioning is based on the requirement that the individual be a part of the chain of production, where everything depends on connections, rules, and intelligible presentation. This is not infrequently achieved through the concept of professionalism – i.e., the unspoken promise that I will act within such limits that guarantee a minimum level of misunderstanding regarding the anticipations associated with my services provided. No working environment can function without at least a minimal operating agreement that doesn’t have to be renegotiated for each individual situation and that therefore does not represent an obstacle to the smoothest possible achievement of the purpose or outcome of a shared activity. To be a professional means being a cog in a machinery of trust that exceeds its own influence. The Declaration sees the artist as a professional when it considers him an ingredient of artistic presentation with the same input and the same rights as all other vocations.
The third characteristic again arises from the second: a formal interchangeability resulting from the basic nature of the vocation – its universality. Just as the work of a plumber is performed by a professional plumber, and it does not matter which specific plumber it is because the category of the relevant profession on its own promises the corresponding service, so too does the Declaration’s artist see himself as an artist by vocation whose work involves, in the words of the Declaration, “experimentation that may subsequently influence the functioning of society” (RE). Before he does anything, the artist promises to conscientiously fulfill the expectations associated with the vocation of artist; in return, he expects to be properly remunerated. He is an artist by vocation – and as such he is interchangeable because the singularity of the practitioner (i.e., his uniqueness and distinctiveness) is secondary to his services provided. Should you be suspicious of my rigorousness, I shall let the Declaration do the characterizing itself: “Although often on an unconscious level, ‘precarious intellectuals’ in art are defined by flexibility, obedience, sharp elbows, and above all low cost.” And: “there are always enough” artists (A2).
The Declaration’s artists find themselves in a situation that is bigger than they are. On the one hand, they say that “[t]he current situation devalues the status of the artist and his contribution to society”; on the other hand they admit: “We don’t want to give up exhibiting.” (RE) But it is impossible to determine fair rules for quantifying the remuneration for an unquantifiable output. And since the Declaration does not define the right to a wage other than through the artist’s work, the artist must, as a demonstrable and evincible artist, exist above and beyond his singularity. The Declaration’s artist is thus not an artist for art’s sake as much as he is an artist for himself and for others. This is because institutions always somehow view their responsibility towards power structures to have been entrusted to them by civil society. They somehow fulfill this responsibility, must demonstrate it, and in the interest of self-preservation resort to immune responses the moment they exceed the boundaries of smooth operations – i.e., operations under which their vocabulary, functioning, and comprehensibility fall apart. Institutions are an intersubjective reality whose existence resists and helps to resist changes in time by, depending on social function and overall character, channeling and stabilizing human behavior. In the interest of generalities, an institution’s relationship to singularities is thus necessarily restrictive.
For the Declaration’s artist, however, institutions represent the promise of peace and quiet for working, a shield against the world of alienation caused by bureaucracy and commerce: “If an artist is not paid for his institutional engagement, he is left with no other choice than to become dependent on commercial operations (of private galleries). The pressure for the salability of artifacts is greater – art loses the autonomy that is the main reason it can be free and critical at all. The other option is to become a bureaucrat and to write grants for one’s own projects.” (A2) Thus I arrive at the fourth characteristic of the artist as seen by the Declaration: the unquestioned ostracizing of commerce. The difference between meeting the demands of institutions and the demands of commerce rests in the mysterious assumption that the first sphere guarantees autonomy, the second the loss thereof.
In my view, this strange premise has a highly non-trivial historical background. A study of its genealogy in Eastern Europe may explain a very strong and widespread set of assumptions that nobody talks about but that continue to be “tested,” especially in the art world. If it manages to avoid simple conclusions as to a black-and-white or right-left view of the world, such an analysis might discover why the categories of commercial and non-commercial are so readily used as a moral club in public debate. Here I will limit myself merely to a few superficial observations related to the characterization of artists.
There is no dispute that the way in which this differentiation is expressed in the realm of culture reflects the legacy of critical theory, although the lightness with which it is adopted in the process of sanctification and the matter-of-factness with which it is used in argumentation make it a vapid and mutated fragment of one of the most inspiring ideological systems to come out of Marxian philosophy. In the Czech Republic, an important contributing factor to this situation has been the radical disruption of the short-lived pre-totalitarian tradition of cultural patronage, a tradition that to this day survives only in the form of an ambivalent nostalgia. However, the danger of alienation and commodification is felt in indirect proportionality to the strength of the practically non-existent art market. In a similar manner, the Holocaust and survival became a public obsession in 1960s America – and this almost exclusively among people who had never experienced the Nazi terror or mortal danger. In this way, history has shown repeatedly that someone else’s memories have a stronger impact that our own. This is true, among other things, because in the process of collective memory-building memories of the past do not face opposition from empirical (and, ipso facto, always more ambiguous) experience – they more easily adapt to the agenda of the present.
In my view, there is no dispute that, not only in Czech society, such “false” memories are extracted from the flexible idea of the West. But if we look, for example, at the history of London’s gallery scene, then we find that in the early twentieth century the city was home to hundreds of commercial galleries and that the coexistence of commercial and royal institutions was not exactly marked by an ideal of harmony.4 Numerous historical cases of “defecting” artists and tug-of-wars regarding the extent to which institutions contributed to artistic status laid the foundations, for a long time to come, for a tradition of confrontation and symbiosis between the commercial and non-commercial. In Great Britain, the moral attributes of artistic presentation may be important, but they are just one of many other factors whose simplification tends to be the work of tabloids, not artists themselves. Today’s global impetuousness, impermanence and simplistic categorizations have not bypassed the British art world, but are significantly conditioned by a historically layered sense of sovereignty whose roots reach down deep below simple political classification.
By comparison, conditions in the Czech Republic continue to be more laboratory-like, without greater differentiation. As opposed to countries with a well-developed art market, there thus still exists an opportunity in our country to patiently cultivate our own sovereign position from scratch, no matter how difficult this is in an environment of implicit conformity. The Declaration acknowledges the role of ruling elites in supporting the arts, but sees it only as a partial solution: “Any attempt at its introduction is 100% appropriate. But it cannot take the role of honoraria, because it is not a rule that can be applied to each individual exhibition by each individual artist.” (RE) The result is an incongruence between what the Declaration says and what follows from its engaged relationship with commerce. We thus arrive at the fifth characteristic of the Declaration’s artist – an inclination towards ready-made moral standpoints containing a hidden contradiction between an interest in patronage and the division of the art world into a morally superior non-profit zone and the corrupting influence of the market. The entrenched approach to dealing with simple categories of cultural policy lacks the sensitivity necessary for a subtler differentiation or for directly identifying singularities in which commerciality is crossed with taste and state support with a passive-aggressive bureaucratic agenda.
Such a pious emulation of a more advanced culture without understanding this culture is called a cargo cult. The Declaration thus follows in a tradition that this magazine’s publisher Ivan Mečl, among others, described some eleven years ago: “Denouncing the art business because it deals in spiritual substance is a unique characteristic of the Czech intellectual world. But contemporary society uses money, and has no other way of measuring the real, transferable and universal. We’ve all chosen such a society, and we can accept its values or ridicule them. But serious attacks are the same as ‘fouling one’s own nest,’ unless one is preparing for a revolution, which is the only goal that can justify such actions. Let’s assume that we’re not revolutionaries, but art theorists. Nevertheless we act like revolutionaries and claim that the art business is bad and hurts the arts. In serious debates we tell this to the artists; we warn them against the temptations of the market; we promise them a life lost in a labyrinth of grants, scholarships and exchange programs. In other words, the life of an artist gone mad from his or her own genius, measured by committees comprised of intellectuals with a similar fate. Frustrated by knowledge of this reality, the artist fears to say aloud that he or she would like to be represented by a commercial gallery and take part in art fairs. He or she would be glad to sell something in order to stop looking for other jobs and borrowing money; he or she would very much like to become economically independent. Because in fact the feeling of being economically independent nourishes spiritual independence.”5
The Declaration’s artists want to bring economic justice to the world of art, but they are hesitant to actively participate in it in order to avoid getting dirty. And so they delegate control over this justice to bureaucracy the same way that they criticize institutions for shifting their responsibility onto the free market.
There exists an unfathomable contradiction in the conviction that the artist loses his autonomy based on the argument that economic rationality must give way to an antiquated faith in exceptions: “[Institutions] sometimes explain the absence of monetary reward with the romantic notion that poor working conditions are simply a natural part of the life of the artist (‘the artist must suffer’). It is assumed that, in art, there simply is no direct correlation between financial remuneration and the symbolic import or contribution of a particular artist or curator.” (A2)
Here, the Declaration’s authors fail to see that it isn’t necessary to resort to the pathos of tragic heroism as a rule and condition while at the same time not replacing it with new rules and conditions in order to effectively pre-negotiate the loss of autonomy by taking a different tack. There is no dispute that the artist’s livelihood tends to be the subject of perpetual worries and insecurity. But this question additionally traumatizes the Declaration’s artists as a problem whose ad hoc solution they do not trust. English philosopher Nick Land supposedly called on his students to “think of life as an open wound, which you poke with a stick to amuse yourself.” By this, he meant to inspire them to do just one thing: admit the possibility that individual human experience is, first and foremost, singular, and that instead of turning our backs to it we can approach it with constantly reinvented determination. Even autonomy must by definition be above all singular, but the Declaration would appear to have unwittingly diluted it into something else: “Our goal is a situation that does not require artists to play the role of their own agent in their relations with public institutions.” (RE) In other words, the Declaration’s artist believes that he loses autonomy if his self-sufficiency must include initiative and inventiveness in the interest of his livelihood, but he is safe if his name is on a paycheck.
If we recall the above-quoted statement that the Declaration’s artist is flexible, obedient and easily replaced (and if we understand this to mean that he is forced into this rule by circumstance), then we will more easily understand why the Declaration’s artist gives no weight to the singularity of the individual. The sixth characteristic of the Declaration’s artist can thus, in the spirit of Sartre, be called “bad faith.” The Declaration’s artist passes off as necessary that which he and anyone else has been condemned to decide freely. Bad faith represents a dishonorable abdication of freedom and a renunciation of the “burden of choice,” but at the same time it is proof of the freedom to turn one’s back on it out of one’s own free will and weakness.
The Declaration’s artist is not interested in poking at the open wound of life, and so, under the flag of morality, calls for healing it instead. The Declaration states, “institutions should stop exploiting artists’ voluntarism” (V). I believe that it is clear that it is actually talking about the artist’s volunteerism and complaisance, which may be (and in the context of the Declaration in fact is) the exact opposite of voluntarism. In actuality, a believer in bad faith sweeps voluntarism from the table because he finds it incompatible with a solution for his precarious situation. This attitude is crowned by the matter-of-factness with which the Declaration’s authors treat one of the historically most fatal and fallacious metaphors of political economy as fact: “As we know, the hand of the market is ‘free’ and ‘invisible,’ which means that it is guided by its own rules and not by the visions of the representatives of public institutions.” (RE)
As we will see below, being aware of this sixth characteristic helps us to better understand why the Declaration gives so much room to economic thought in its argumentation. Although it is almost always ascribed solely to the modern era and considered an outcome of capitalism, economic rationality has far older roots. In fact, in his Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche theorized that fixing prices, setting values, working out equivalents, and exchanging may well be “thinking” in the original sense of the word. As such, it is the root not only of social structures and forms of organization, but also of the very idea of justice. The eye, whose most characteristic tendency was to compare, weigh and estimate equilibrium, thus represented the best prepared organ for morals – in which services are balanced out by remuneration, the punishment fits the crime, allocated power is redeemed through responsibility, and wrongdoing is settled through retribution. This eye “soon arrived at the great generalization: ‘everything has its price; all can be paid for,’ the oldest and most naive moral canon of justice, the beginning of all ‘kindness,’ of all ‘equity,’ of all ‘goodwill,’ of all ‘objectivity’ in the world.”6
The ability to go beyond this primary rationality has historically been a feature of military, erotic, artistic, philosophical, and aristocratic life – in which generosity ranks far above fairness (a naive idea of moral balance), gifts are not given in anticipation of gratitude, and services and counterservices are measured by the size of the spirit and the power of the parties involved – and which in its greatness manages to embrace the concepts of excess, lavishness, unremitting pain, unredressed wrong or unfounded generosity, dissonance, and error. Only with the abandonment of the ethical-aesthetic dogma of balance and symmetry as the main rule of judgment do we encounter a worldview that takes a creative approach to the world as an eternal beginning. One can only reason and act ad hoc if reason and emotion are not a foundation, but mere tools, and nothing has been decided in advance.
We can tell a culture’s maturity by its response to the transgression of primary economic rationality – i.e., the amount of resistance that society and individuals put up against this reductive way of thinking. Bataille, who follows in Nietzsche’s footsteps in his meditation upon transgression, speaks of the isolability of phenomena: “When it is necessary to change an automobile tire, open an abscess or plough a vineyard, it is easy to manage a quite limited operation. The elements on which the action is brought to bear are not completely isolated from the rest of the world, but it is possible to act on them as if they were: one can complete the operation without once needing to consider the whole, of which the tire, the abscess or the vineyard is nevertheless an integral part. The changes brought about do not perceptibly alter the other things, nor does the ceaseless action from without have an appreciable effect on the conduct of the operation.”7
Isolability can here be understood as the extent to which the measurable assessment and comprehension of phenomena does not meet with resistance in the diverse areas of life. Interconnection and operational isolability reveals a dimension within phenomena whose existence we have already sensed and that prevents or allows us to see them with varying degrees of generality, as long as they do not explicitly demand a singular assessment. As for the position that contemporary artists take towards the world of phenomena at whose center they find themselves – we have heard the answer to this question numerous times. Few people raise an eyebrow anymore at the managerial approach that artists have adopted. Its apparent necessity is an important part of the artist’s realistic view of himself and his environment. Divide et impera as the central principle of this way of seeing explains the isolability of phenomena, to which the art world puts up less and less resistance. The seventh and final characteristic of the Declaration’s artist is thus determined by the managerial style that causes him to lose contact with phenomena in their radical non-isolability from the entirety of life and the world.
“Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.”8
The Declaration’s Realism and the Forgotten Singularity of the Individual
In my view, the question of the singularity of the artist’s position towards himself and his environment holds a central position within today’s art and the art world. The Declaration, however, understands it merely in terms of the need to be perceptive of social issues and a willingness to combine forces in opposition to egoism and romantic notions of the suffering artist. Because the question of the individual goes beyond the world of art, the manner in which the Declaration neglects it is symptomatic of the state of the world in general – it therefore also offers an interesting link to the question of criticism. Indeed, the Declaration contains the term “realism” as described by, for instance, Mark Fisher.9 What we have here is an appeal to common sense, whose sobriety eliminates radical ways of thinking as impractical and outdated and which resorts to morals as a socially perceived aspect of Good.
As with the threat of the art market, which didn’t exist before in the Czech Republic, the figure of the romantic artist is consciously distorted by secondary experience. The Declaration simplifies the image of this artist in order to add the weight of realism to its role of naïve antithesis. At the same time, it throws onto the dustbin of history the historical lesson that even stories of romantic artists are merely the extract of effects whose causes – about which we can say only that as much as they may be subject to the conditions of the time, they reflect a universal and untimely fumbling about in the dark – have disappeared in time. By slapping around the straw man of the romantic artist, the Declaration diverts attention away from the timeless challenge to colonize the continents of autonomy in each era anew. The Declaration achieves this by amputating its source – the inexhaustibility of creation.
Instead of resisting the rules of the precarious game, the Declaration’s realism leads it to accede to them: it understands itself as a bearer of capital and wants to live in a world without the temptation of corruption. By rejecting the image of the suffering artist, it also erases the molecular logic of the individual’s relationship to society. It hopes to advocate for the social contract, but it omits one side of this bilateral relationship. For the Declaration, the individual is a mere member, with the rights and obligations that this membership guarantees. It refuses to understand him as a link or constituent element that, either actively or passively, represents a vector of power as in Newton’s cradle; i.e., a constituent element that either resists or legitimizes its surroundings – one that creates. The Declaration’s artist has no problem using the definition of the individual to reserve for himself nearly all the rights of market capitalism, which incessantly bombards us with images of a wonderful life, personal choice, independence, experiment, the end of discomfort, “all-in-one,” and the attractive spectacle of ease and availability, where we are all just a click away from happiness. The success of today’s monopoly on the image of the individual is reflected in the fact that the idea of reevaluating the individual strikes us as reactionary and that we passively rely on the end of the cult of personality and an instrumental understanding of the “death of the subject.”
It is difficult to talk about the individual and to be an individual today, when, following the gradual subtraction of historically worn images, all that is left of him is a mere shadow – the end user. The individual has been reduced to a “dividual” who compensates for the friction of everyday life through instantaneous flights into a stream of the Same in which he sheds the burden of himself by becoming a mere conductor within the circuits of information. He is an individual whose identity spreads out and is lost within the matrix, and whom we ever more frequently encounter through statistics showing the steady increase in mental illness over the past twenty years. We are witnesses to the normalization of a lack of willpower and to newly emerging traps that we have learned to see only in economic terms because all other terms would seem to be subjected to them.
The Declaration’s artist has given up on the difficult task of thinking of himself as a source of inspiration for a future for the individual that is not reaction but competition. Instead of imbuing his precarious situation with energy, identity, and imagination that do not reduce his insecurity and randomness but see it as the end of freedom, he validates the conditions from whose rejection he himself arises, for he fails to appreciate their sophisticated and far-reaching impact. These are the conditions that explain, but do not excuse, why the Declaration’s artist has forgotten his own freedom, why he calls for engagement although he himself is willing to become engaged only to the extent that this choice does not threaten his possible participation in the art world.
Artists Acceding to the Rules of the Game
Slavoj Žižek points out the risks associated with realism when he says that precisely these partial demands that (latently) fight for something universal (such as the restructuring of society or the art world) run the risk of being met, thus extinguishing the metaphoric struggle.10 In the end effect, these partial successes only validate the general social conditions of instrumental tolerance and openness to differences – differences that, as Žižek reminds us, include fundamental concessions towards democracy. At the same time, however, this seeming universal tolerance increases our intolerance towards those who do not accede to these conditions and who refuse to conform, which is often explained as resulting from their laziness or backwardness. The problem of our democratic sensibilities thus is not some kind of amorality expressed through a lack of principles, but the open expression of moralism that that avoids evaluating the new conditions by trying to constantly reproduce the Same and suppress the Other using seemingly neutral means such as common sense.
It would seem that, in art, the historical lessons of institutional criticism have had an effect that is entirely counter to its spirit. It is as if the story of its failure – at a moment when institutions themselves have begun to encourage and finance their criticism – represents a reason for “going rogue” and provides a handy alibi for forgetting a historically implemented solution and its original impulse. It as if artists had decided that this is not the way, that resisting compromise has gone out of fashion, so let’s return to the table and reach an agreement. After all, we are a part of the system like everyone else and want our fair share as well.
At a time when one of the extremely few identifiable and yet unintegratable positions is held by those who “refuse to conform,”11 artists want to conform. Instead of further exposing the open wound of reality and pulling the mesh of the matrix towards the Other, they have chosen the opposite course; having filled in their application for (and endorsement of) social obligations, they stand in line for a collective security provided by enlightened managers and sociologists.
The Declaration’s authors are right that times have moved on and artists’ activities have changed. Even the artist has changed. Sooner or later, the modern drive towards the objectification of life probably “had” to give art a social definition as well, to give it a face, purpose and reason for existence. Art was apparently no longer capable of standing on its own legs without the help of adjectives such as engaged, experimental, independent, non-commercial, or contemporary. Jacques Rancière is convinced that art no longer offers any promises.12 And yet, even today we still encounter lively and inventive activities founded on previously unexplored dynamics of new forms, except that this is happening mostly outside of art. There still are people who play with masks of comprehensibility, who walk through locked doors with a laugh, and who, when we reach for them, turn into air.
The publisher of this magazine once observed in a private conversation that the advantage of the possible success of cultural economists, producers and initiatives such as the Declaration against a Zero Wage might be an atmosphere that – just as artists in the past distanced themselves from the cultural establishment – will force others to distance themselves from artists. For these others, even criticism and experimentation would be too narrow in the good-heartedness of the intent. They won’t ask what is right, but will create – in the most primal, indefinable and thus constantly reincarnated meaning.
Translated from Czech by Stephan von Pohl.
1 Jiří Ptáček, Tereza Stejskalová, and Pavel Sterec, “Nulová mzda,” A2, no. 23 (2011): 13 [hereafter referred to as A2]; “Odpověď iniciátorů Výzvy proti nulové mzdě,” Artalk.cz, Sept. 6, 2012, http://www.artalk.cz/2012/09/06/odpoved-iniciatoru-vyzvy-proti-nulove-mzde/. [hereafter referred to as RE]; Výzva proti nulové mzdě, 2012 http://vyzvaprotinulovemzde.blogspot.cz/ [hereafter referred to as V]
2 Zygmunt Bauman, Individualizovaná společnost (Praha: Mladá fronta, 2004), 19.
3 Karin Knorr Cetina, “Postsocial Relations: Theorizing Sociality in a Postsocial Environment,” in Handbook of Social Theory, ed. George Ritzer and Barry Smart (London: SAGE, 2001), 521-537.
4 Pamela Fletcher, “On the Rise of the Commercial Art Gallery in London,” in BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=pamela-fletcher-on-the-rise-of-the-commercial-art-gallery-in-london.
5 Ivan Mečl, “Fear Not the Fair,” Umělec, 2001, no. 4: 34-35.
6 Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogie morálky. Polemika (Praha: Aurora, 2002), 52 (II/8).
7 Georges Bataille, Prokletá část & Teorie náboženství (Praha: Herrmann & synové, 1998), 21.
8 Ibid, 30.
9 Kapitalistický realismus. Proč je dnes snazší představit si konec světa než konec kapitalismu (Praha: Rybka Publishers, 2010).
10 Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 2009), 204.
11 Translator’s note: the Czech word “nepřizpůsobiví” has been used recently in a negative context to criticize certain social groups, in particular Roma (gypsies), for refusing to “adapt,” “integrate,” or “conform” to the lifestyle of “majority society.”
12 Jacques Rancière, “Lyotard and the Aesthetics of the Sublime: a Counter-reading of Kant,” in Aesthetics and Its Discontents (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 88-105.